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How to Write a Professional Letter of Recommendation (+ Free Template & Samples)

No matter what career or industry you’re in, you’re likely going to reach a point where you need to request a letter of recommendation or write one for someone.

This is an exciting opportunity, but you need to know what a letter of recommendation is to make the most of it. 

What Is a Letter of Recommendation?

It’s kind of self-explanatory, isn’t it? The letter acts as a vote of confidence in the person under question. It’s the writer’s objective to highlight specific character traits and skills for the subject of the letter.

They’re known by several different names too. If you ever hear someone mention a letter of reference, reference, or recommendation letters, then they’re talking about the same thing.

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When Are They Used?

You’ll usually hear them brought up in conversations about potential hires. Employers will ask for a letter of recommendation to verify someone’s skills and experience.

For example, say you’re applying for a project management position. You can request a letter of recommendation to validate your ability to manage responsibilities.

Some graduate schools and academic programs will request a reference as well, and they can be approached in the same way.

Who Usually Writes Letters of Recommendation?

This can be a tough decision to make. You’ll want to make sure you can trust who you’re asking to devote enough time and energy into it.

While it’s more common to ask a former manager to provide a reference, you can actually pursue both personal and professional references.

  • A personal reference speaks to your character, so you definitely want to seek out those who you are close with to provide you with one – someone who knows your values and character, like coaches, teachers, professors, and the like.
  • A professional reference is meant to highlight your job capabilities. Consider the prospective job’s qualifications when deciding who to ask for a professional recommendation. They should be able to speak about your specific examples of awesome work.

How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

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It can feel a bit awkward to ask someone to essentially brag about you on paper. But, if you choose wisely, the right person will be more than happy to support your career efforts. Keep these tips in mind when you need a reference:

  • Plan ahead so the person you’re asking has the time they need. A rushed letter can hurt you even more than no letter at all, so allow them the time to make it a quality recommendation.
  • Clearly describe what the letter is for and who the writer should address it to. This way they won’t have to write a vague reference. You’ll want them to be as specific as possible in detailing your qualifications.
  • Provide dates of when you worked together and noteworthy accomplishments you had with the person you’re asking to write the letter. Validate the writer in the same way that they’re validating you. That way their word is credible.
  • Always ask in person, or at least ask over the phone. You’re asking them for a favor, so you should be sincere and polite in your approach.
  • If they need to mail in a letter, give the writer stamped envelopes to simplify the process. There’s two reasons for doing this. One, again, you’re asking for a favor. Provide them with what they need as a courtesy. Two, if the letter is time sensitive, then you don’t want to run the risk of the writer not getting it out in time because they didn’t have the time to pick up stamps.

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

On the flip side of the coin, as you progress in your career, you’ll probably be asked to write a letter for a co-worker. It’s time to return on that good will.

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Before you start writing though, you should always be sure that you feel like you can write a positive letter of reference for the person asking.

If you feel like you can’t be honest or clear on their behalf, then politely decline the offer and encourage them to approach someone they’ve worked closer with.

If you can vouch for them, then ask all the right questions so you can write a detailed, up-to-date reference.

Request a current resume and ask for the job position so that you can tailor your messaging to be in line with their personal brand and skill set. Make sure that you have a clear understanding of who you’re going to be sending the letter to and what the deadline is.

Let’s cover some commonly asked questions that will help you write the letter.

How Long Should a Letter of Recommendation Be?

On average, it should be between two and four paragraphs. Too short and it can look like you don’t know the person well or can’t fully endorse specifics for them. Run it too long and you can deter the recipient from reading it.

There’s a sweet spot that you should aim for: single page, single space, and doesn’t require more than a couple of minutes to read.

What Should Be Included In a Letter of Recommendation?

With such limitations on length, it can be hard to decide what to put into the body of your letter. There are a few key elements that you shouldn’t skip out on.

Provide an explanation of how you know the person who you’re writing about. Technically, they could have asked a stranger on the street to do it, but that doesn’t necessarily make that stranger’s word credible, now does it? Establish your authority as someone who can speak on behalf of the subject.

You’ll want to give a clear assessment of their character. Avoid using general adjectives, like “great” or “awesome” when discussing their traits. Be specific about what makes them “cool to be around.” Are they compassionate? Organized? Loyal? Dive deep.

A detailed explanation of their unique strengths and specialties is what is going to be the most valuable in the eyes of the employer. If you can provide specific examples of great work that you’ve experienced with or received from the person in question, include them.

This is your opportunity to explain why and how you think this person is going to bring something to the position that another applicant can’t.

Should I Use a Letter of Recommendation Format?

Formatting is excellent because it will guide you through outlining the entire letter. It should look something like this:

Greeting

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If you know the contact information of the individual or hiring team that you’re writing to, be sure to use it at the beginning when you address them.

Always begin with “Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name” if you have those details. Otherwise, you can write a general “To Whom it May Concern” before starting your first paragraph.

Introduction

This is where you want to establish how you know the person that you’re writing the letter for. Introduce yourself and your job title (if it’s a professional letter).

Mention how long you’ve known them and why you agreed to write it for them. Don’t forget to acknowledge the position that they are applying for. Your introduction doesn’t need to go on for too long. Just enough to explain the purpose of the letter.

Paragraph 1: How You Know Them

The first paragraph needs to provide a lot more detail on your connection to the person in question.

Be specific about how you know them, in what capacity, and why you’re qualified to write this letter. Be clear about whether you’re speaking from a personal or professional point of view.

Paragraphs 2-4: Why They’re Qualified and a List of Successes

Here is where you get to the meat and potatoes of it all. You’re no longer talking about them in the context of yourself, you should be highlighting them as an individual.

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What makes them qualified for the position? How are they going to contribute toward the organization? This is where you’ll want to describe those examples of skill and success that you thought up earlier.

Closing

The closing paragraph doesn’t have to be lengthy. Offer the opportunity to share more information if needed and provide your preferred contact information.

Some employers seek out verbal recommendations in order to get more detail or ask more specific questions. Before wrapping up, reiterate your recommendation.

Letter of Recommendation Template

Want a faster way of writing a recommendation? Check out this template:

General Template

Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name],

It’s with great pleasure that I recommend [Name] for [position] with [Company].

[Name] and I are/were [relationship] at [Company]for [length of time].

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with [Name] and came to know [him/her] as an invaluable asset to absolutely any team. [He/she] is honest, dependable, and has an incredible work ethic. Even more so, [he/she] is a remarkable [skill] who is always [result].

[Name]'s knowledge of [specific subject] and expertise in [specific subject] provided a great service to our entire office. [He/she] put this skillset to work in order to [specific accomplishment].

Along with [him/her] undeniable talent, [Name] has always been a positive influence to have around. [He/she] is a true team player, and always manages to spark positive, engaging conversations and bring the best out of other employees.

I can confidently recommend [Name] to join your team at [Company] with ease. As a dedicated, professional and knowledgeable employee, I know that [he/she] will be a truly valuable addition to your organization.

Please feel free to contact me at [your contact information] should you like to discuss [Name]’s qualifications or experience further. I’d be happy to expand on my recommendation.

Best wishes,
[Your Name]

Depending on who you are writing the letter for, there are certain elements and details that you should include based on your relationship. We’ll go over what to focus on for each professional scenario.

For Employees

As a supervisor or manager, your word carries a lot more weight than another person’s. You can give valuable insight to how the applicant operates and performs. Here’s what to mention from a management perspective:

  • Keep all the skills and accomplishments you bring up relevant to the new company or position. It may be a different industry, so highlight any transferable skills that apply.
  • Provide detailed examples of how the applicant benefitted your company. How did they apply their skills and expertise to improve your business?
  • Include how you saw the person contribute to a healthy work environment with the rest of the team and in what ways you saw them grow and succeed professionally.

For Co-workers

Co-workers can provide a unique point of view since they have a more intimate and direct relationship with a person’s work. Leverage your work relationship by talking about these details specifically:

  • Write about projects that you worked alongside the applicant on and how you were able to witness their skills firsthand. Don’t forget to list any achievements your co-worker and your team specifically earned as a result.
  • Emphasize how you viewed your co-worker as a valuable team member and what traits they possess to make the environment feel productive and positive.
  • If you worked with them for a long time, highlight that fact. You’ll be able to truly attest to their personality and professional development over time.

Character Reference

There will be times when you’re asked to vouch for a friend or colleague on a personal level and speak to their character. These types of letters should still be polite and professional, if not a little less formal. Here’s what to specifically address:

  • Bring up how this person is a positive example outside of the workplace. How can these personality traits transfer over to their job and aid in their success?
  • You know them on a much more intimate and casual level, but that doesn’t mean you can’t imagine how they’ll act at work. Speak on their positive traits and how you know their values will carry over into a professional setting.

Sample Letter of Recommendation

For a better frame of reference, here are a few samples:

Sample Letter 1

Mr. Fred Rogers
City Planner

Dear Mr. Rogers,

It’s with great pleasure that I recommend Steve Stripes for your open position as a park planner.

I have been teaching Steve in my advanced 2D art class at our local community center for five years now.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working with Steve and have come to know him as an attentive and detailed student, worker, and friend. He is honest, dependable, and has an incredible work ethic. Even more so, he has an incredible gift for looking at an empty space and creating something innovative within it.

His knowledge of dimension and space and expertise in design made him an incredible student, whom I trusted to tutor others in my class. He has put this skillset to work in order to elevate his peers and even create some of the art hanging in Town Hall.

Along with his undeniable talent, Steve has always been a positive influence to have around. He is a collaborative and compassionate colleague, and always manages to spark positive, engaging conversations and bring the best out of the other students.

I can confidently recommend Steve to join your planning team. As a dedicated, inventive, and knowledgeable creator, I know that he will be a truly valuable addition to your organization.

Please feel free to contact me at (321) 987-6540 should you like to discuss Steve’s qualifications or experience further. I’d be happy to expand on my recommendation.

Best wishes,
Bob Ross

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Sample Letter 2

Dear Mrs. Smith,

It’s my absolute pleasure to recommend Joe Black for the Sales Manager position with The Big Company.

Joe and I worked together at Things & Stuff, where I was his manager and direct supervisor from 2014-2018.

I was thoroughly impressed during my time working with Joe, and came to know him as a truly valuable asset to any team. He is independent, reliable, and incredibly hard-working. Beyond that, he is an impressive problem solver who is always able to address complicated matters with strategy and confidence. Joe doesn’t see challenges. He sees inspiration and is rarely intimidated.

His knowledge of sales etiquette and expertise in handling disgruntled customers was a huge advantage to our entire office. He put this skill set to work in order to increase our customer retention by over 19% in just one quarter. I know that Joe was a huge part of our success.

Along with his incredible professional skill set, Joe has always been an absolute blast to work with. He is a true team player, and always manages to foster friendly and fun banter to bring the other employees together.

I can confidently recommend Joe to join your team at The Big Company. As a dedicated, professional, and knowledgeable employee, I know that he will be a beneficial addition to your organization.

Please feel free to contact me at (987) 654-0321 should you like to discuss Joe’s qualifications and experience further. I’d be happy to expand on my recommendation.

Best wishes,
Jane White
Sales Director
Things & Stuff

As you can see, both writing and receiving a letter of recommendation is powerful. You can now feel confident and prepared in either asking for or providing one in the future.

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Micah Lally

Micah Lally

I’m a Content Writer at Bluleadz. I’m a big fan of books, movies, music, video games, and the ocean. It sounds impossible to do all of those at the same time, but you’d be surprised by the things I can accomplish.